Tuesday January 5, 2010

C-SPAN Challenges Dems to Publicize Secret Health Bill Talks

Negotiations Resume Tuesday between Democrat leaders and White House – Republicans, Stupak Dems shut out

By Kathleen Gilbert

WASHINGTON, D.C., January 4, 2010 ( – As Democrat leaders commence their final round of negotiations on the health care bill in secret meetings following the Christmas holiday, C-SPAN has issued a letter to the president and lawmakers challenging them to live up to their promises of transparency and allow the network to cover the proceedings.

“President Obama, Senate and House leaders, many of your rank-and-file members, and the nation’s editorial pages have all talked about the value of transparent discussions on reforming the nation’s health care system,” wrote C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb to congressional leaders in a letter dated December 30.

“Now that the process moves to the critical stage of reconciliation between the Chambers, we respectfully request that you allow the public full access, through television, to legislation that will affect the lives of every single American.”

House Minority Leader John Boehner responded promptly to C-SPAN’s letter, stating that “all House Republicans strongly endorse your proposal and stand ready to work with you to make it a reality.” Unfortunately, he said, “the President, Speaker Pelosi, and Senate Majority Leader Reid now intend to shut out the American people at the most critical hour by skipping a bipartisan conference committee and hammering out a final health care bill in secret.”

A handful of Democrat chamber and committee leaders today are meeting with the White House to hash out how to surmount the final hurdles facing the abortion-expanding health care legislation crafted separately in both House and Senate. Those versions, which pose significant differences on some contentious points, must be ironed out in a final version for President Obama to sign. Leaders hope to get the bill on the President’s desk by the State of the Union address – but previous deadlines on the bill have consistently slipped.

Instead of an even-handed merge, leaders are expected to expedite passage by sending the Senate health bill to the House, which will amend the bill and send it back to the Senate for approval.

The process, known as the “ping-pong” option, largely throws out the hard-won language contained only in the House version of the bill – including the Hyde amendment restriction on abortion funding. While pro-life and conservative leaders have heavily criticized the bill on a number of aspects, including its propensity to promote health care rationing and doctor-assisted suicide, the bill’s vast expansion of federal abortion funding has earned it the title of the greatest threat to the unborn in America since Roe v. Wade.

Such merging is usually conducted in full view in the chambers of Congress. Although skipping the formal committee meetings is not without precedent, critics are angry at Democrats for choosing the secretive route in the final round of the bill, which many consider the most significant social policy legislation in a generation.

Fueling the criticism are reports from lawmakers and aides who say Republican and conservative Democrat lawmakers have been entirely shut out of the negotiations. House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) said leaders would skip the committee because motions to select and instruct conferees in the Senate “would need 60 votes all over again.”

“This process cuts out the Republicans,” said a House Democratic aide, according to a Talking Points Memo report, adding that Democrats intended to ensure the minority party would “not have a motion to recommit opportunity.”

Leading conservative Democrats such as Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) have confirmed that leadership has kept them away from the negotiating table as well. Stupak is the leader of a handful of conservative Democrats who have promised to vote against the bill if it does not contain Hyde-amendment restrictions on abortion funding.

After federal abortion funding became the top sticking point in both the House and Senate bills, it could remain the clearest block to the measure’s final passage if Stupak’s company holds strong.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) continues to face the after-effects reneging on his promise in December to filibuster the bill if it contained federal abortion funding: protesters with Rescue the Heartland and Operation Rescue braved a -9 degree wind chill on New Year’s Day to demonstrate outside the senator’s home.

The full House does not reconvene until next week, and the Senate will return in two weeks. Meanwhile, majority leaders in both chambers will meet with President Obama Tuesday evening to discuss the final bill, before a caucus meeting via conference call scheduled for Thursday.

The White House’s health reform campaign also continued in aggressive tones this week, reminding followers of its “reality check” series on health care to dismiss criticism of the bill.

“This isn’t fear-mongering based on some deceptive distortion as we so often hear from those opponents, it’s cold hard facts,” wrote Nancy Ann DeParle in a Tuesday post highlighting the negative aspects of the current health care situation.

A Washington Times editorial Tuesday blasted the Obama administration for the overtly furtive tactics propelling the sweeping health measure to the finish line.

“By now it’s almost trite to complain that President Obama repeatedly has broken his campaign pledge to ‘broadcast [health care] negotiations on C-SPAN so that the American people can see what the choices are.’ That doesn’t make the complaint invalid,” it notes.

“For legislation that could so profoundly and personally affect the daily lives of every American, Congress and the White House should be more transparent and more accessible than ever before. Instead, the process has been secretive and sordid throughout.

“Back in October, Rep. Vern Buchanan, Florida Republican, offered this simple resolution: ‘Resolved, that it is the sense of the House of Representatives that any conference committee or other meetings held to determine the final content of sweeping national health care legislation be held in full public view and not behind closed doors.’ If congressional leaders do not abide this simple request, Republicans should bring the whole Senate to a halt.”